What do you see when you look in old family photos? Michelle Van Loon redirects our gaze.
The Face in the Photo: The Power of our Family Stories
By Michelle Van Loon
After our mom died in 2007, my younger sister and I found a stash of old photo albums our father had created before his death 10 years earlier. There were some wonderful images of our childhoods and older snaps of our parents’ wedding. As we leafed through the pages of other old albums, we saw black-and-white snapshots that captured the joy and struggle of the early years of my father’s immigrant parents in the United States: our paternal grandmother, wrapped in a 48-star American flag shortly after her arrival in this country in 1914; a picture of my paternal grandfather’s American dream—his very own junkyard in Peoria, IL; gatherings with other relatives who’d made it out of Eastern Europe around the same time they had.
In one of those old photo albums, my sister and I discovered a series of pictures of our mother we’d never seen before. Until that moment, I realized I’d never seen a single snapshot of my mother as a baby, child, or young teen. She was born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, just as our father was. My sister and I had always known that, like many young Jewish women of her generation in the years after World War II, our mother had gotten a rhinoplasty, more commonly known as a nose job, when she was in her teens in order to reduce the size of her nose so she wouldn’t look so “ethnic.” Her goal was to better fit in with modern American ideals of beauty. Then, because she was still unhappy with the results of the first surgery, she underwent a second rhinoplasty to further reduce the size of her nose. Until the day my sister and I found that album, the only picture I’d ever seen of my mother before she met my father was her high school graduation picture, which was taken after her second surgery.
Seeing photographs of my mother as a child was like looking into a mirror. I looked just like her. And those images brought something else into focus for me. When I was a child, my mom often told me how unattractive I was, followed by a pledge that when I was old enough, my parents would make sure I would have a nose job to “fix” my damaged appearance.
In fact, I’d had a consultation with a Chicago surgeon when I was 15, and my parents scheduled the procedure right after I finished my school year. But a few months earlier, I’d come to faith in Jesus the Messiah. As a result, I was rethinking whether I really needed to undergo the surgery. Was it possible that God loved me just as I was? Though that truth felt more like a wish than a settled reality at that point in my life, in faith I elected to cancel the procedure. My parents never said a word about it again.
When I saw those pictures of my mother as a child, I realized that she was seeing her younger self in the mirror of my childhood face.
A deep compassion for my mom welled up in me as I reflected on the unhappiness she must have felt throughout her childhood and adolescence. In a home marked by alcoholism and layers of secrets, I am certain my mom grew up hearing the same kinds of hurtful things she said to me reflexively. She believed that surgery would be the solution to her pain. Instead, it drove it underground – at least, until I was born 4 years later.
While some of us may be able to point to generations of faithful, wise forebears, most of us inherit family history that is far more complicated than that. God creates each one of us from a one-of-a-kind mix of ingredients that include genetics, trauma and upheaval experienced by our ancestors, the consequences of some of the choices they made, the secrets they held, the estrangements that may have marked some of their relationships, their race, ethnicity, location, and faith.
As I moved into my own adulthood, I imagined that the difficult parts of my family history could be overwritten with a generous application of just the right Bible verses and prayer. That was magical thinking, wrapped in spiritual-sounding packaging. The effort I put in trying to forget my past and ignore my family story depleted me, and when I found myself in a counselor’s chair during a period of clinical depression, I began to discover that healing and renewal come not from trying to forget a painful past but doing the work of remembering rightly.
When King David pled for God’s help, a key part of his cry was his intention to remember: “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands” (Psalm 143:5, italics mine). The visceral verbs used in this verse are instructive as to why this kind of remembering was essential to David’s – and why it matters to us. “Remember” is the translation of the Hebrew word zakar, which describes experiencing a past event as if it was happening right now. The word “meditate” is the translation of the word hagah, which means to growl and groan. Siyach, which means “ponder,” carries with it the notion of complaining as well as meditating. David understood what it meant to remember as something like being immersed in an intense flashback intended to catalyze him in the present toward both meaningful action and deeper devotion.
As we seek to remember our own family stories, they can hold for us a deeper connection to God and the world around us, gain a fuller understanding of those who came before us, and discover the necessary tools to be able to pass on a rich and hopeful legacy to those who may come after us. The stories that contain abuse, abandonment, mental illness, or addiction may be best remembered in the company of a counselor, spiritual director, and/or a wise, prayerful friend. But those family stories can help us see the beauty in a sad smile in an old photograph – or the face in the mirror.
Adapted from Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma by Michelle Van Loon. Used by permission of Herald Press. All rights reserved.
Photo in text of the blog is Michelle's mom, Gail Weintraub Marks, at about age 4.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of seven books, including Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma (Herald Press). Michelle has a wide range of published work to her credit including articles, curriculum, devotionals, articles, and plays. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a women's theology organization, and the co-founder of ThePerennialGen.com, a website for midlife women and men. Learn more about her work at MichelleVanLoon.com.